In my first blog post in January, I defined learning agility as finding yourself in a new situation, not knowing what to do and then figuring it out. I made the case for why knowing an employee’s degree of learning agility would be important to his or her future potential in the organization. I discussed the distinction between learning ability (smarts) and agility (a range of capabilities). Finally, I referenced research by Scott DeRue, who described two dimensions of learning agility, and Warner Burke, who added seven more dimensions and then created a validated test to measure learning agility.

In this blog post, let’s look deeper into learning agility, what else impacts it and how we develop it.

The first question that you might have is, “How does learning agility happen? Does it just appear? Is there a chain of events?” DeRue says that in a situation in which learning agility might occur, there is certain “stuff” that happens first. He calls that stuff “antecedents.” Each person brings different antecedents to a situation – whether you are extroverted or introverted, for example, or how goal-directed you are. It could be your level of skill in a certain area.

Antecedents --> Learning Agility

DeRue also says the context can be a mitigating factor. Some contexts promote creativity and innovation, and some stifle it. It’s an important enough factor that it needs to be described. This context then leads to some type of behavior. Ideally, it is a demonstration of learning agility in response to an unfamiliar situation.

antecedents and contextual factors --> learning agility --> outcomes

There are a few more important factors. First is skill. How proficient is a person in this area? People with a higher level of skill might perform better. A second factor is motivation. How important is this situation to the person? If it’s important, he or she might put more energy into accomplishing the task and may even prioritize it over anything else.

The third issue that impacts learning agility is defensiveness. Most people aren’t going to do something perfectly the first time they do it. Receiving feedback about one’s performance is critical to improving that performance. When a performer responds with defensiveness to a session with a third party who gives solicited constructive feedback, that session will soon be terminated. Why bother? The performer is not listening to the feedback; he or she is defending that behavior. Defensiveness gets in the way of receiving information that will allow the performer to demonstrate greater learning agility in one of the nine areas.

If you take a learning agility assessment and find out there is room for improvement in one or more dimensions, how do you improve? There is a process I was exposed to many years ago at McBer and Company (a Boston consulting firm that no longer exists) called the competency acquisition process. Although we are trying to acquire learning agility, not competencies, the process is the same.

There are five steps:

  1. Recognition: In this first step, you need to be able to look at a situation and recognize that the person in the situation demonstrated a learning agility dimension, like feedback seeking. You might use a case study.
  2. Understanding: If you are using a case study, have the participants cite the specific sentence or sentences that describe the learning agility dimension. Each of the learning agility dimensions has four or five descriptors. You want participants to clearly understand what specifically is included in defining that learning agility dimension.
  3. Assessment: One means of helping participants understand each dimension is Burke’s assessment. Another option is to have them assess themselves. Ask them to give you specific examples of where they demonstrated that learning agility dimension. You could also ask someone who knows that person well to do an assessment using specific examples.
  4. Skill practice: Once participants know what aspects of a learning agility dimension they to strengthen, they should practice demonstrating it with someone in a training environment.
  5. Practice on the job: Participants should identify one to three situations in which they can practice using aspects of the learning agility dimension on the job.

In the next blog post, I will identify specific learning agility dimensions and look at how to strengthen them in training or on the job.